Like many Japanese and Chinese movies, Kinoshita’s 1953 “Nihon no higeki” has a multiplicity of English renderings. They may seem close but “A Japanese Tragedy” has a quite different meaning than “Tragedy of Japan” (or, even, “Japanese Tragedy”). The opening montage of Occupation and incipient (but corrupt) democracy in Japan suggests that the focus will be at the macro level, and the tragedy (in the singular) is the dominance of militarists who reaped the wind of war and sowed the disaster of defeat.
Most of the movie, however, focuses on the middle-aged Inoue Haruko (Mochizuki Yûko), whose husband was killed in Tokyo during the war by an American bomb. She has struggled to provide education and concomitant better life chances for her 21-year-old daughter, Utako (Katsuragi Yôko), and nineteen -year-old medical school-attending son, Seiichi (Taura Masami). To put it mildly, neither appreciates her devotion. Both are embarrassed by her overemotionalism, by her low-status employment, as a food-serving girl in an inn in the tourist destination of Atami (near Tokyo) and by having prostituted herself to get money to support her family in the desperate times following Japan’s defeat.
She is a bit cloying, but the ingratitude is extreme. Partly, her children have been turned against her by her brother-in-law (Himori Shinichi) to whom she mistakenly entrusted caring for them on her husband’s land. The black marketeer violated his agreement, which had been forged on family solidarity that he invoked but did not deliver.
Utako was raped soon after the end of the war. She tells the English teacher (Uehara Ken) who wants her to run away with him that she doesn’t dislike him personally, but that she hates men in general… and also his wife. She goes off with him without even leaving a note to her mother.
Meanwhile, Seiichi wants to be adopted by an aged physician and his wife. They lost their only son during the war and can provide him more money and status (including professional status) than his mother can. They are never seen, but could not have less empathy for Haruko than their son does. Both children avoid eye contact when she visits.
The tearjerker “mother picture” (haha-mono) is a tragedy of the shattered Japan. The newspaper headlines and newsreel footage are the macro connection to the micro story of one shattered family and there is a flashback to a classroom in a bombed out (ceilingless) building in which Utako questions the teacher who had earlier espoused the noble mission of the Japanese military and now says it was a mistake. She accuses him of lying to the students and he responds that he mistakenly believed propaganda fed him.
The mosaic of public events was novel to Japanese audiences ca. 1953, though the flashbacks to rubble, hypocrisy, and disaster could not have been. They are more ancient history now, and I found the flashbacks more interesting than Haruko’s plaints (however well justified) to and about her children and her nefarious brother-in-law and his equally nasty wife.
Audie Bock (Japanese Film Directors) points out that at the same time Kinoshita was making “Nihon no higeki,” Ozu Yasijuro said he was making a film about the breakdown of the traditional Japanese family system (Tokyo Story, generally regarded as Ozu’s masterpiece), but that “Kinoshita drives home all that Ozu left out… [with] maternal love and beauty corrupted by outside, impersonal, unfeeling political and social forces.”
It shared with Ozu films many long takes, though beginning with a fast-cutting montage. Kinoshita’s brother-in-law cinematographer delivered some striking deep-focus shots in and around the inn where Haruko drudges.
(Takahashi Teiji and Sada Keiji)
Before the montage of disaster and at the very end, a street musician played by Sada Keiji accompanying himself on guitar intones the melancholy “Resort Town Elegy.” This seems weird (especially with Sada being the performer) more than sentimental.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray